MOUNT VERNON — The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of the American legal system and affects nearly all areas of everyday life, including employer-employee relations. That could be one reason so-called “bad apples” are able to move from job to job with no apparent consequences for inappropriate behavior.
That mobility is of special interest when the so-called “bad apple” is an educator.
Knox County Educational Service Center superintendent Timm Mackley agreed. “But,” he added, “in my years of experience, the diligence of the education system has improved. Schools routinely perform criminal background checks on new employees, and educators undergo a new BCII check every time their license is renewed. It’s more common now for school officials to make certain that they not only ensure that employees who do something improper are not employed in their system, but are not employed in school systems across the board. I think there’s more in place now to make sure that happens.”
“To be fair,” said Ohio Department of Education press secretary Scott Blake, “anybody can make an allegation, and they can allege whatever they like. There is due process involved and everyone is entitled to due process. ... It’s evaluated on a case-by-case basis depending on the information the district has been able to gather, the circumstances of the situation, whether or not the people who were part of the situation are willing to talk to the district or to ODE investigators. There is a certain point where things can’t be corroborated, just like in a court of law. We would need to be able to prove that whatever alleged actions occurred, that we’re taking actions against the license for, actually occurred.”
The Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators establishes the standards by which the behavior of school employees are measured, and the ODE may or may not investigate every violation of that code.
“There are no set criteria as to whether ODE would pursue an investigation,” Blake said. “Some issues are better addressed by the local educational entity rather than at the state level. In addition, the department may not investigate a violation of the LCPCOE if the school district or educational entity imposed a penalty, sanction or other conditions that adequately addressed the educator’s conduct. School districts, however, must submit a report of educator misconduct if: An educator has been convicted of a criminal offense; termination/non-renewal proceedings have been initiated due to an educator’s unbecoming conduct; an educator has resigned under threat of termination/non-renewal; or an educator has resigned in the course of investigation.”
School districts are also required to notify ODE when a teacher is under investigation for alleged misconduct, although it is not clear as to what ODE means by the term investigation. “If there is a situation in a district where questions arise about a teacher’s conduct, and it doesn’t matter what type of conduct we’re talking about,” Blake said, “but if questions about conduct come up, and the school district initiates an investigation and the individual resigns or is fired, the school district is then required to notify ODE (Office of Professional Conduct). We at that point will determine, based on the information we get from the district, whether a state-level investigation is warranted where we might take action against a person’s license.”
So, what happens if there are suspicions of misconduct that cannot be proven and the teacher applies for a job in another district? Blake said, “ODE is prevented statutorily from saying a particular individual is being investigated. It comes back to the due process issue. Once action is taken against somebody’s license, then the information becomes public. School district officials could speak to folks in our Professional Conduct Office if they had questions about an individual, but we are not allowed to disclose whether or not we are looking into anybody.”
“Because one is innocent until proven guilty,” said Mackley, “as an employer being asked for a reference you need to be sure you are being fair to the employee. If there is a ‘gag order’ attached to the separation agreement, it cannot be violated. We cannot speak to rumors, but can state whether or not we would re-employ the individual and may answer general questions as to any concerns of which the prospective school district should be aware.”
Individuals, as well as school district personnel, can access an educator conduct search database on the ODE website if they have concerns about a particular teacher or school official. Blake said there are different levels of access to the database, and school officials therefore may have access to certain information not available to the general public.
Individuals may also report suspected improper behavior directly to the ODE Office of Professional Conduct, toll free at (877) 644-6338, or e-mail email@example.com or go to the ODE website at ode.state.oh.us and type Professional Conduct in the search box.
There is a “Citizen Reporting Form” that does not require the date of birth or Social Security number of the educator. This is the form that parents or members of the public can use to report instances of misconduct. The form for the district to report misconduct does require the date of birth, SSN and other personal information of the educator, which the district would have. All of the reporting forms are available at education.ohio.gov.
Julie Daubenmire of the ODE also provided informtion for this article.